Ghodsieh Ashraf, Iranian Baha’i, Health and Education Pioneer, Among First Iranian Women to Graduate from United States University

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Translation by Iran Press Watch

Iranian Baha'i

Ghodsieh Ashraf, an Iranian Baha’i citizen and one of the first Iranian women to graduate from a United States University, spent her life in serving in the fields of education and health, and was responsible for pioneering many groundbreaking initiatives.

Ms. Ashraf was born in Majidābād, northeast of Tehran, on November 22, 1889.1 Her early education included introduction to religious manuscripts in Persian and Arabic by Mirza Baji Khanum and lessons in writing by Mirza Yusuf Khan Vojdani, as well as studying English with a private tutor at home. As she was an exceptional student, her family enrolled her in Tehran’s American School for girls. She was able to complete the school’s courses in three years. During those years she assisted at various schools in Tehran, including the Tarbiyat al-Banat, a Baha’i school for girls in Tehran.1

As it was not possible for Ms. Ashraf to adequately further her education and goals in Iran, her family decided to send her to the United States to continue her education. Together with Dr. Lutfullah Hakim and four others, Ms. Ashraf left Tehran on April 16, 1911 and arrived in the United States on June 3, 1911. It is of note that on the final leg of her journey, Southhampton, England to New York City aboard the RMS Mauretania, she was accompanied by Louis G. Gregory, an attorney and prominent American Baha’i.She was 22 years old at the time of this journey.

Ms. Ashraf swiftly pursued her studies in the United States, completing high school courses in two years, receiving her high school diploma on June 17, 1914. She received her bachelor’s degree from Boston University in the summer of 1917. In June of 1917 she completed the Red Cross First Aid course, receiving the American Red Cross certificate. On June 5, 1918, she received her Master’s Degree from Columbia University.

Travel issues due to WWI prevented Ms. Ashraf from returning home to Iran. Without wasting any time, she sought out new learning opportunities. In October 1918, she obtained her Girl Scouts certificate in New Jersey. For the purpose of gaining experience for her future service in Iran, she taught at the public high school in Flemington, New Jersey, 1918-1919. The Spanish Flu pandemic hit the United States in 1918. Using her nursing, first aid and Girl Scout skills, Ms. Ashraf volunteered comprehensive and effective service to low income families, the isolated, and the elderly. Although herself afflicted with the illness, she continued tending to her patients.

When Abdu’l-Baha (the son of the prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith) was visiting Chicago, IL, Ms. Ashraf accompanied him at several functions. On May 1, 1912, at the behest of Abdu’l-Baha, representatives of communities in the U.S. and the Baha’is of the East assembled for the setting of the cornerstone of the Mother Temple of the West (the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, IL). Ms. Ashraf was also in attendance, representing the women of the East.

In 1919, Ms. Ashraf returned to Iran. She requested an interview with the Education Minister, Nosrat-al-Dowleh (during Vosoogh-al-Dowleh’s tenure as Prime Minister), where she produced her academic credentials and declared her readiness to serve her country. Despite her many outstanding qualifications, Nosrat-al-Dowleh refused to hire Ms. Ashraf because she was a Baha’i. The Baha’is had been a persecuted religious minority in Iran, since the Faith’s inception in 1844.

Despite being denied the opportunity to serve as a teacher, Ms. Ashraf found ways to render service in the field of education. At that time, she was an active member of the Committee for the Advancement of Women, and involved in the organization of classes for its members. With the passing of Lillian Kappes, the principal at the time of the Tarbiyat Girls’ School of Tehran (Tarbiyat al-Banat), Ms. Ashraf took over as principal. In that capacity she took significant initiatives, notably offering monthly conferences and adult literacy classes.

Continuing her education, in the Spring of 1928, Ms. Ashraf enrolled in the American University of Beirut. On June 25, 1930 she received her diploma in nursing, and on June 23, 1931, her midwifery diploma.

Ms. Ashraf was given a work permit by the governments of The Republic of Lebanon and the Palestine. She established a practice in Nablus, Palestine, which became a refuge not only for women, but all those in the area in need of medical care. In 1930, when the first Women’s Congress in the East convened in Damascus, Ms. Ashraf’s moral integrity and professional competence compelled the Iranian government to appoint her as that country’s representative. At the time, the Iranian newspaper, Ettelaat, reported, “Representatives from Iran attended this meeting. An eloquent speaker, Ms. Ghodieh Ashraf did such an excellent job in her role as the representative of the Iranian women, that Tehran was selected as the location for the second congress.”

After returning to Iran, Ms. Ashraf was hired by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Starting in 1944, she worked in the Social Services Department, in the section providing education and welfare to the laborers and their families. Two years later, in 1946, she was appointed as the department head. Initially she focused on the conditions of the single laborers. This group, which numbered around 500, lived in very modest housing known as the “Karevansara”. Ms. Ashraf engaged in efforts to improve the housing, health and hygiene conditions for these laborers, changed the name to the laborer “rest homes”, and established adult literacy classes for the education of the laborers. The situation of the married laborers required more major changes. Ms. Ashraf noticed a high level of domestic disputes in these families. She learned that most of the tensions were rooted in the conditions of the children, known as “street kids”, who were deprived of education opportunities. Ms. Ashraf successfully established the first kindergarten and elementary school for the children of the laborers, which covered about 900 of the children from those families. She hired 20 teachers, each of whom she personally selected, to serve in the school. Special attention was paid to the health of the children, especially their eye care and the necessary treatments, since about 90% where afflicted with Trachoma. Gradually, the relationships within the families improved. She regularly visited the laborers homes to keep apprised of the needs and shortcomings which caused them mental stress. She tended to and cared for the pregnant and nursing women and their infants.

During her visits to the homes of the laborers, Ms. Ashraf found a need for a school for the wives and young daughters of the laborers. In 1948 she established a school for them, which was attended by 300 girls and young women.

Ms. Ashraf was appointed to Abadan’s Education Council, was a founding member and board member of the Abadan Art Society, and was appointed to the supervisory board of the Institute for the Protection of the Economically Disadvantaged Children. With her financial and moral support, she provided the means for several talented youth to pursue their studies abroad, and in one case, opened her home to the young wife and small child of a young student, who wished to further his education in his specialty abroad, so he could fulfill his dream without worries.

Ms. Ashraf retired from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1949 but chose to remain in Abadan. She chose her residence in the poorest area of town, known as “Hassir-Abad” (shanty town). She established a practice and clinic adjacent to her home, to make medical services and supplies available to the needy population. In the room where she practiced, a closet was set aside for health and hygiene products, first aid, medicine and medical supplies, and some infant and toddler clothing items. Her family and friends knew to provide the items needed to replenish the stock in the closet, to be distributed to the needy free of charge.

At the end of 1956, eager to participate in the Ten Year Spiritual Crusade (a Baha’i plan for pioneering and teaching the Faith in various countries around the world) Ms. Ashraf initially joined her nephew Mr. Abdollah Sahihi, a pioneer in Brazil. She then served in three more countries; Brazil, Ecuador and Columbia. In 1963 she bid farewell to South America, and after attending the World Congress in London, returned to Iran.

Ms. Ashraf eventually took up residence in the vast Gorgan Plain, in the Khoosheh Farm near Kalakeh and 46 kilometers from Gonbad-e-Kavoos. There were fifty households in the village, mostly Balooch, some of them Baha’is and other Muslims. A small building had been built as the Baha’i center, but there were no facilities for children’s education, and no proper health, hygiene or nutrition provisions. here was no postal or telephone service in the area, and to access to those services required traveling to Gonbad-e-Kavoos.

Ms. Ashraf set up a small clinic next to the Baha’i center. The clinic was open 24 hours a day, and under the care and services of Ms. Ashraf, the villagers benefited from the availability of vaccination, access to medication, wound care, treatment of contagious diseases and women’s healthcare. But Ms. Ashraf did not stop there. In her home visits, she would share her wisdom and expertise with the villagers and educate them in matters of hygiene and health.

Shortly after settling at the Khoosheh Farm, she established a five-year elementary school, conforming to the Ministry of Education’s standards, for 50 children. The children took and passed the Ministry’s standardized tests.

Ms. Ashraf had dedicated a room in her humble home for the education of the women in the village. After completing their farming duties, in addition to getting lessons in reading and writing, as well as the fine arts, they were exposed to lofty ideas and some subjects of human interest, as she tried to expand their horizons beyond the boundaries of the farm and elevate their intellects above their mundane concerns.

To ensure the continuity of the educational and healthcare services, whether in the school, at the women’s classes or at the clinic, Ms. Ashraf selected some of her talented and capable students as her assistants and delegated some of the responsibilities to them. In the village, she had established a small library so that the villages could become familiar with the joy of reading.

At the end of fall of 1963, Ms. Ashraf returned to Tehran, but despite her advanced age (74), prepared again for service. She took up residence in the village of Takor. The Missaghieh Hospital had made plans to establish a small clinic in Takor, and to provide the physician and the medicines.

Ms. Ashraf served in Takor for two years, until on April 16, 1976, exactly 65 years after she left Iran to study in the United States, she passed away in Tehran.


[1] Encyclopedia Britannica


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